Female Buddhist education and the Buddhist revival

The Buddhist revivalists of the late 19th century placed great emphasis on female education. Colonel Olcott spoke of the need for Buddhist girls’ schools, claiming that “the mother is the first teacher”, and this was echoed by Buddhist men who argued they wanted “companions who shall stand shoulder to shoulder with ourselves.”

The rise of the Sinhala Buddhist petty bourgeoisie, comprising of traders, merchants, teachers, and petty professionals, had a large say in the clamour for education for Buddhist women. As Jayawardena has noted, “there was much discussion on the need for educated Buddhist wives, presentable in bourgeois colonial society, as well as educated mothers who would reproduce… the next generation of Sinhala Buddhists.”

The hubbub, in other words, was for a status of equality with bourgeois women, who were either tutored at home or sent to missionary enclaves. But before delving into how schools for Buddhist girls came to be, it’s important to make a distinction between two kinds of education: monastic and secular.

Female monastic education dates back to the time of the Buddha, when after much cajoling by his chief disciple Ananda, he permitted the establishment of a female Buddhist order. As with every other philosophical-mundane question, the issue of women entering the sasanaya, transcending their traditionally defined roles of wives and mothers, was resolved in an ambiguous way: while the Buddha told Ananda that there was room in the Order for nuns, he had earlier rejected his stepmother Mahaprajapati Gotami’s request for female ordination. In any case, the new female order was recognised, with the Buddha foretelling that his teachings would last so long as both monks and nuns, and both laymen and laywomen, practised mindfulness.

Female monastic education came to Sri Lanka with the arrival of Sanghamitta in the third century BC and the ordination of Devanampiya Tissa’s queen, Anula. The Bhikkuni order lasted for 15 centuries until the Chola invasions in the Polonnaruwa period. Until that point, several strides had been made in the sisterhood, including the writing of the Theri Gatha (“Psalms of the Sisters”), a compendium of 522 gathas by 73 nuns dating back to the sixth century BCE. No attempt was made to revive the order after it fell, and not until the 19th century do we see interest in its revival peak again. This was largely due to the work of one woman, the first dasasil matha (“Ten Precept Nun”) of Sri Lanka, Sister Sudharmācārī (née Catherine de Alwis), and of a group of Bhikkus and dasasil mathas who, in 1998, despite opposition from conservative sections of the Sangha, initiated a Bhikkuni Order; the efforts of Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thera of the Rangiri Dambulla Chapter of the Siyam Nikaya, who filed a case at the Human Rights Council arguing that the State should recognise Bhikkunis and register their monasteries, must be acknowledged here.

Secular education for Buddhist girls preceded the ordination of the dasasil mathas. As far as monasteries and monastic schools went, no clear-cut distinction was made between religious and secular instruction, since monks were at the forefront of education. Female education was abandoned, if not neglected, until the arrival of the missionaries (Coomaraswamy wrote that monks were responsible for the education of boys); as the very first British commentators on the country (and Kandy) noted, “the greater part of men can read or write” (Cordimer), and education was confined chiefly to “the male part of the population” (Davy); given that works like the Kavyasekara and Selalihini Sandeshaya idealised women who stayed at home and played a subordinate role to the fathers and husbands, we can take the lack of interest in their education to have been culturally and religiously sanctioned.

The “debut of the bourgeois woman” was a phenomenon of 19th century colonial society, and Sri Lanka was no exception. While most elite schools cropped up after the government abandoned English education as per the recommendations of the Morgan Committee Report of 1870, female education had picked up decades earlier in Jaffna with the establishment of the American Ceylon Mission in 1816 and the Uduvil Girls’ School eight years later.

The latter, which began with 22 students, became Asia’s first boarding school for girls; set up as a counterpart to the Batticotta Seminary in Vadukoddai, its first principal was a missionary from Connecticut, Harriet Winslow. Tamil society, as with Sinhala society, was averse to the idea of female education. In that sense the success of the school (followed by establishments in Varany in 1834 and Nallur in 1841) had to do with how it reinforced traditional patterns (most girls were from the Vellala caste) and also breached them (common dining between castes was practiced).

This paradox (of reinforcing traditionalism while breaching it) was seen in girls’ schools in other parts of the country as well. While doing away with traditional practices, most of these schools kept intact the gender-class structures of colonial society, grooming women to be devoted mothers, daughters, and wives. Female education in the 19th century followed either of two paths: courses for ladylike pursuits, like music, and academic courses and professions, like medicine (Jayawardena).

In 1881, a girl sat for the Senior Cambridge Examination and five other girls sat for the Junior Cambridge Examination for the first time, with the number rising to 15 and 77 respectively in 1900 (Jayaweera). This was the time when the women’s movement was picking up in England: it was there, in the 1870s, that the suffrage campaign began. It was also the time when another movement was picking up at home: the Buddhist revival. The contradiction between conservatism and emancipation with regard to female education thus eventually spilt over to Buddhist schools.

Modern Sinhala Buddhist secular education for women began with the establishment of the Sanghamitta Girls’ School in 1891. According to Jayawardena, there were serious differences of opinion over the running of the school. When tensions between the two managers, Alfred Buultjens and Peter de Abrew, peaked, the principal Marie Musaeus Higgins left and, supported by de Abrew, started her own school that bears her name today. Sanghamitta, meanwhile, was relocated to another location in Foster Lane (at a cost of about Rs. 30 million today, according to Moonesinghe), and administered after 1898 by the Maha Bodhi Society under Anagarika Dharmapala and principalship of Miranda de Souza Canavarro. The school, run on Roman Catholic lines (with a Buddhist sisterhood which conformed to Convent practices), was superseded by Musaeus College; the friendship between Dharmapala and Canavarro having deteriorated, it continued without the sisterhood. Regardless, its impact on the dasasil matha movement cannot be overstated.

Obeyesekere’s and Gombrich’s classification of Protestant Buddhism doesn’t really stand up to the test (read, in particular, Irving Johnson’s comprehensive critique, “The Buddha and the Puritan: Weberian Reflections on ‘Protestant Buddhism’”), but it explains, in part at least, the clamour for a larger role for the laity, the emphasis on hard work, and the “urbanisation” of Buddhism after the late 19th century. This was felt acutely in education as well, even in the domain of female education: an article in a Buddhist magazine in 1914 rejected the relegation and degradation of the female by classical Sinhala writers: “Our Sinhala men are still trying to confine us to the kitchen.” At the same time, the petty bourgeoisie without whom the revival would never have happened were deeply traditionalist: one only needs to read Piyadasa Sirisena’s diatribes against mixed marriages to understand this contradiction in the revival. Upward aspiring as they were, however, the revivalists couldn’t resist the trend towards female education. They wanted to educate their daughters.

The founding of Visakha Vidyalaya in 1917 marked a zenith in the history of female education (not just Buddhist) in the country. As with other such schools, this too was staffed by foreign women (“sudu ammas” or “white mothers”). Manel Tampoe in her account of Selestina Dias, founder of Visakha, details the development of the school; suffice it to say that by the time of her death she had contributed Rs. 450,000 (more than Rs. 300 million today). To celebrate its opening, “a sumptuous garden party” was held “to which those in high society flocked in gay attire”; as Jayawardena wrote, it was “an important, though overdue, day for the Buddhist bourgeoisie.” The first principal, Bernice T. Banning, a native of Providence, Rhode Island and a graduate of Wisconsin University, served for a year before leaving for Madras “for the purpose of study and recreation, on behalf of the Theosophical Society.”

Over the next 50 years Visakha would be headed by foreign (mostly Western) principals, all of whom had to contend with the conservatism of the Sinhala Buddhist bourgeoisie, including the case of girls being taken off the school register because they had to be married off at a young age or because, in the opinion of the father, they had “enough education for a girl” (Goonesekara). With such inexorable contradictions do these schools, today the bastions of female Buddhist education in Sri Lanka, continue to flourish; their fluctuating fortunes, however, are grist for another essay.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com


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